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A Refined Method for Studying Foraging Behaviour and Body Mass in Group-Housed European Starlings

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Melissa BatesonORCiD, Ryan Nolan



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


© 2022 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland.Laboratory experiments on passerine birds have been important for testing hypotheses regarding the effects of environmental variables on the adaptive regulation of body mass. However, previous work in this area has suffered from poor ecological validity and animal welfare due to the requirement to house birds individually in small cages to facilitate behavioural measurement and frequent catching for weighing. Here, we describe the social foraging system, a novel technology that permits continuous collection of individual-level data on operant foraging behaviour and body mass from group-housed European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). We report on the rapid acquisition of operant key pecking, followed by foraging and body mass data from two groups of six birds maintained on a fixed-ratio operant schedule under closed economy for 11 consecutive days. Birds gained 6.0 ± 1.2 g (mean ± sd) between dawn and dusk each day and lost an equal amount overnight. Individual daily mass gain trajectories were non-linear, with the rate of gain decelerating between dawn and dusk. Within-bird variation in daily foraging effort (key pecks) positively predicted within-bird variation in dusk mass. However, between-bird variation in mean foraging effort was uncorrelated with between-bird variation in mean mass, potentially indicative of individual differences in daily energy requirements. We conclude that the social foraging system delivers refined data collection and offers potential for improving our understanding of mass regulation in starlings and other species.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Bateson M, Nolan R

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Animals

Year: 2022

Volume: 12

Issue: 9

Online publication date: 29/04/2022

Acceptance date: 26/04/2022

Date deposited: 14/07/2022

ISSN (electronic): 2076-2615

Publisher: MDPI


DOI: 10.3390/ani12091159


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Funder referenceFunder name
BB/J016446/1Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)